How should a premier magnet school boost Black and Latino enrollment? A suggested lottery spurs fierce debate.

Aware of the problem, several previous administrators tried to alter the admissions system, but none of their efforts yielded concrete results. For many — although not for the handful of Black and Latino students and graduates — the issue faded into the background until this summer, when protests over the murder of George Floyd began to spread nationally. Around the same time, the Fairfax school system released numbers showing that Thomas Jefferson’s Class of 2024 included less than 10 Black students.

Those twin events led to a huge spike in activism, as students and alumni formed action groups, began sharing their own experiences with racism at TJ and lobbied school leaders to take action. Again and again, they rehashed the statistics: In 2019-2020, mirroring years-long trends, the student body of roughly 1,800 was 70 percent Asian, 20 percent White, 2.6 percent Hispanic and less than 2 percent Black.

A few months later, Brabrand suggested the most sweeping changes to the admissions system — traditionally composed of a two-part math, reading, science and writing test — since the school’s founding in 1985. Under his proposal, the test is gone, as are the application fee of $100 and teacher recommendation letters. Instead, eighth-grade students from five geographical areas will be allowed to enter a random lottery if they meet certain qualifications: a 3.5 GPA and enrollment in Algebra I.

Those in favor of the plan argue it is the only practical, immediate way to begin solving a decades-old, intractable problem.

“It might be imperfect,” said Anant Das, 23, who is South Asian and graduated from TJ in 2015, “but the county has had 20 years to fix this issue, and they haven’t.

“There’s momentum now, now is the time,” Das added. “You can’t have another class of TJ students go through this.”

Detractors, however, are equally fierce in their belief that a lottery system will do irreparable harm to the school, forcing unqualified students into an academic environment destined to quash them and eventually driving down TJ’s stellar academic rating. They also argue that a lottery will rob hard-working students, who’ve spent years preparing for TJ and are passionate about STEM (the school’s focus), of their rightful place at a high school that can make or break their college and career hopes.

This line of thinking is personal for Norma Margulies, mother to one of the 16 Hispanic students in this year’s freshman class at TJ.

Margulies, 54, said the superintendent’s proposal felt like a slap in the face. Her son overcame the disbelief of a string of school advisers — one of whom suggested he should plan on working in sales — through hours of studying, which eventually led to near-perfect grades and a place at his dream school.

Instead of leaving admissions to “a roll of the dice,” Margulies said, the superintendent should address the deeper, underlying issue: the fact that so many young Hispanic and Black children in Fairfax County grow up thinking STEM, and TJ, are out of their reach. She wants Fairfax to establish better youth outreach programs, initiatives that target low-income and minority families and teach them STEM is a possibility. In fact, she recently founded her own group, “Hispanics for STEM,” that seeks to do exactly this.

Margulies said her son first mentioned the proposal to her while the family was having dinner. He became livid — more angry than she had ever seen him — and reflected back on all his hard work to gain acceptance to TJ. Under a lottery, he said, he probably would have been denied. He kept repeating the same four words: “I can’t believe it.”

“We always told our son, with hard work and by embracing education, you’re going to achieve the American Dream,” Margulies said. “This lottery is a betrayal of the American Dream.”

Decades of failed change attempts

For years, the TJ admissions system has looked the same: Eighth-grade students sit for a first test in the fall, which grills them on math, reading and science. A second round, held in the winter, asks applicants to write timed responses to essay questions, often including a query on why they want to attend TJ.

The process is rigorous, tiring for students and highly competitive. Last year, the acceptance rate clocked in around 19 percent.

“It was so stressful, and so much work,” especially for a 13-year-old, recalled Gurleen Kaur, 17, a TJ senior. “Just a ton of effort.”

The TJ test is available to students across Fairfax and a handful of surrounding counties, and is supposedly race-blind. But critics have long alleged that racial background and socioeconomic status actually play an outsize role in determining children’s success.

For one thing, some families can pay for expensive test preparation programs that give students a significant boost in the admissions process. The same holds true for impressive extracurriculars: Some parents can fork over the funds for fancy STEM summer camps, adding zest to their students’ résumés, but many cannot.

Others point all the way back to elementary school, when Fairfax administers a test to first- and second-grade students that determines whether they qualify for the Advanced Academic Program (AAP), a gifted-and-talented program widely viewed as a pipeline to TJ. Like TJ, the AAP is majority White and Asian: Black and Latino students made up just 18 percent of the highest-level AAP classes in 2019-2020. Critics argue this is because, at such a young age, students are entirely products of their home environment and the academic resources their parents can afford.

Brabrand, the superintendent, referenced some of these long-standing concerns when he announced the reform proposal on Sept. 15.

“We have been working to understand why the talent at [Thomas Jefferson] does not reflect the talent in [Fairfax County Public Schools],” Brabrand wrote in a public release. “We believe there has been overreliance upon the current admissions test, which tends to reflect upon the socioeconomic background of test takers or the ability for students to obtain private test preparation instead of students’ true academic potential.”

Under the superintendent’s new system, the test would disappear. Instead, students with qualifying academic credentials — the 3.5 GPA, the Algebra I credit — would fill out an information sheet that includes a questionnaire and an essay.

After a “holistic review,” officials would sort these students into five different “pathways” based on where they live: one in Arlington County, one in Fairfax County, one in Falls Church City, one in Loudoun County and one in Prince William County. Each pathway would receive a slightly different number of seats: 350 for Fairfax, 62 for Loudoun, 18 for Arlington, 2 for Falls Church and 68 for Prince William.

Students would then win these seats according to a random lottery. If the school board votes to adopt the new system, it would take effect immediately with the Class of 2025.

In a Sept. 15 presentation to board members, Brabrand predicted this system would have substantial and swift results. He showed slides suggesting it would have bumped Black and Hispanic enrollment to roughly 6 and 8 percent of previous classes. It would also have reduced Asian enrollment down to roughly 30 percent, and boosted White enrollment to nearly half the student body — all data, Brabrand said, that better reflects the makeup of Fairfax County.

He noted he is one in a long line of school officials who have tried to effect change at TJ. Other attempted fixes have included adding various tests to the admissions process, hiring an “outreach specialist” and at one point tacking on a “problem solving essay.”

These, Brabrand said, failed to make a significant impact — but he insisted his proposal is different.

“TJ must reflect . . . diversity, equity, and inclusiveness,” he said. The “new admission process . . . will accomplish that.”

A brewing battle

As the school board vote nears, the fight is heating up among parents, alumni and students. TJ affiliates have formed two vocal, enemy groups: the Coalition for TJ, which is working against the superintendent’s reforms, and the TJ Alumni Action Group, which supports it.

Several members of the Coalition, all TJ parents who work in data science, conducted an analysis — using publicly available data — that concluded Brabrand’s proposal would exclude more than 300 children from TJ who would have qualified by taking the test. The analysis also suggested the lottery would reduce Asian enrollment and increase the White presence at TJ by much larger margins than Fairfax officials are projecting.

“The story here is that Asians are losing out and the White demographic is going to gain most,” said Himanshu Verma, 43, a TJ parent and IT expert who was born in India and helped perform the analysis.

The TJ Alumni Action group, meanwhile, is phoning and emailing school board members to convince them to back the proposal. About half are supportive so far, according to member Anant Das.

“Look, bottom line is, the lottery is going to give everyone a better chance of getting in,” Das said. “Perfection is the enemy of progress: This puts us in the right direction.”

For TJ seniors, their school has the center of a roiling debate with national implications just as they are trying to adjust to online learning — like all of Fairfax County, TJ has been remote since school started on Sept. 8 — and begin the college application process.

Tiffany Ji, 17, said the whole thing is bizarre. She said teachers have mostly tried to avoid talking about it in class, and many students are wary of bringing it up even among themselves. Ji herself is not yet sure how she feels about the proposal, although she thinks it’s important to have a conversation about how to promote equity.

“It is so weird thinking your school is political and a topic of contention,” she said, “when it’s also supposed to be just the place you’re learning.”

Dinan Elsyad, also 17, said it can be difficult to watch the heated arguments playing out among adults in the area. But Elsyad, who is Black and has experienced racism at TJ, said that — at this point in her high school career — she has been forced to adjust to high-profile controversy.

“It’s so odd to think what TJ would be like without all of this stuff,” she said. “Imagining a normal high school experience kind of blows my mind.”

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